The Slug

The world exploded in sound and Matt flung his bulk from the bed so hard he almost slammed into the desk on the opposite wall. He stood there for a moment, blinking, heart pounding, his fat fingers splayed across the small screen on the wall, waiting for the alarm to kick off.

He thought about calling the management and having them recalibrate the alarm again. It was supposed to turn off when he got out of the bed. But he was a little shy of the rent, which meant a visit to his dad first. Which meant the alarm was a problem for another day.

Still blinking, running his tongue around his sour-tasting mouth, he grabbed his work pad off the desk and lurched toward the bathroom cubby. He had to pee. Working his pad with his left hand, he conducted his biological business with his other. Frankly, he was amazed they could charge rent for this shoe box. It was barely above the space he could be allotted for free in one of the wards.

Matt sighed and looked at his reflection in the bathroom wall. Two creases from pillow wrinkles slashed down the middle of his pale moon face. His blue eyes disappeared in puffy sleep-deprived bags, and he had sleep crud in the corners of his mouth. And his crowning glory, the big blond afro of genetic mystery, leaned like the tower on a pizza box; completely flat on the same side as the pillow stripes. He looked like the beginning shot of a super villain, right before the gamma rays hit.

He sighed again, shook, flushed, and pushed at his hair, trying to get it to even out. He should get it cut, if he was going to ask his dad for money. The step-unit had this crazy obsession with Matt getting a job, and looking like he was looking for work.

"Got news for you, bitch," Matt explained to the mirror, shoving a toothbrush in his mouth and turning it on. "Work is a choice, these days. It's perfectly acceptable to abstain from the greedy, manipulative, materialistic views of the masses. Some of us don't need..."

He drifted off from his rant to switch from Princess Mayiko fanfic on his work pad--he'd already read that entry--to the Greedy Gremlins web comic. He giggled at the screen, spat into the sink, and stuck the brush in the other side of his mouth before continuing his rant. "You know, I do my fair share. I haven't been behind on my civic hours in over three months."

The notification alarm dinged, interrupting his mirror speech. "What, Vali?" Matt snapped, bending over to spit in the sink and slamming his toothbrush into the charger.

"You have a medical appointment scheduled in one hour. Would you like the coordinates sent to your work pad?" the computer spoke in a soothing but cool feminine voice.

"No." He frowned, his lips pursing out with a pout, making a sudsy mustache of his paste spit. "Shit. Reschedule."

"This appointment has already been postponed twice. Without notice from employer for an eligible reason, failure to attend this appointment will be reported as medical noncompliance. This could result in alteration or termination of living allowance. Would you like the coordinates sent to your work pad?"

"No." Matt said, face screwed up like a fist and turning red. Even the damn computer was after him to get a job. It's not like there were jobs just out there on the street to just reach out and take. "I know where it is."

He tumbled out of the bathroom stall and grabbed a pair of pants from the wad on the end of his bed. Stepping into the pants and then his shoes, he looked around for his jacket. About sick to death of everyone telling him what to do, he slapped the button for the door.

"Sensors indicate that the shower has not run for at least 48 hours," Vali said, her cool tone heating his cheeks.

"I'm fine, Vali. Open the door, or I'll be late." He slipped his work pad into his jacket pocket.

"Personal cleanliness is a social requirement for the health and happiness of all..."

Matt reached into the bathroom cubby and slapped the shower button, his face so hot the tips of his ears should be scorching his puffy fro. "There. Showered. Now open the fucking door."

The computer said nothing further, but the shower shut off and the door slid open.

With a wordless grunt, Matt slammed out of his apartment and down the sterile, safety-treaded hallway. Since he was going to hit up his dad, anyway, he might as well stop for a cup of coffee on the way. Treat himself a little.


He didn't get to stop for coffee on the way, after all. His train downtown got delayed by some guy over the tracks, threatening to jump. A lot of the people around him complained that for making everyone wait, the guy should have at least jumped, as a courtesy to their collective spent time.

Matt really didn't mind the time; he'd spent it catching up on the black market toon, Frog in a Blender, giggling away with his headphones in. Probably he would have been pissed if it made him late for his appointment. The medical system was supposed to catch wackjobs like that, and keep them from disrupting society. That would have been ironic; getting placed in noncompliance because the system didn't hold up its end with someone else.

So, now moved on to reading new Ninja Nosforatu fanfic, Matt trundled down the street to the cement and steel medical building his doctor kept offices in. Riding the elevator to the 19th floor, Matt glanced around to see if anyone else was checking out his work pad. This was some sick shit, necrophilia and such, but funny as hell.

Face-in to the screen, he walked out of the elevator and down the hall. When you were a big guy, people moved out of your way if you let them. He went up to the check-in window and pressed his palm down on the pad.

A warning gong sounded behind the counter, and the palm pad flashed red.

He sighed heavily, looking up at the frosted glass covering the window. "What now?"

The frown puckered his face as he waited. An old man behind him grumbled about the wait. Matt huffed, just about ready to go tap on the frosted glass window and demand assistance, when a nurse stepped out of a door behind them. "Mr. Brooks?"

"Yah," he said, stepping forward.

She looked at him, head to toe, her eyebrows shooting up her dark, pretty face. "Mr. Matthew Brooks?"

"Yah. What?" He stepped up.

She stepped back, blinked and wrinkled her nose, and held out her work pad as she held her breath. The palm lock screen displayed.

Another heavy sigh, and he dropped his right hand on the pad. "What seems to be the problem, here?"

She looked at him, after the palm scan confirmed his identity. Her expression remained professional and impassive, but her eyes loathed him. "You were supposed to come in for labs."

"Must have slipped my mind." He gave a massive shrug and waggled his fingers in the air. "So?"

"So. You have to do your labs." She turned down the hall. "Follow me."

"Will this take long?" he gave a heavy sigh and followed. "I have other engagements on the schedule today."

She shrugged back at him. "As long as it would have taken if you came in last week when you were supposed to." The nurse stopped in front of a medi-cabinet door. "This is the biggest one we have."

He blinked at her, knowing she was being snide about his size and refusing to give her a reaction.

She frowned with visible disapproval. "You know, not coming in for your lab work like you're supposed to doesn't save any time. It just makes everyone else have to work harder." She had a hand propped up on her hip, full lecture mode, and didn't look so pretty to him anymore.

He gave a careless shrug and looked away.

"Right," she snapped, and popped open the cabinet door. "Once the door closes, remove all clothing, shoes, and jewelry. Place these items in the side cubby, and then press the red button on the door." She pointed to a large red button labeled READY. "You will then have five seconds to raise your arms above your head."

"Yah. I know." Matt mumbled as he squeezed into the cabinet.

The nurse gave a nasty grin as she stabbed at her work pad. "Then stand still until the buzzer sounds. Oh, and keep your eyes and mouth closed." She slammed the door closed.

"Wait. What?" Matt called, but too late. Ah, well, he shrugged and began taking off his clothes, stuffing them into the cubby. There was barely enough room, for his clothes or his person. No matter where he stood, he pressed into at least two of the walls. Cold, almost greasy plastic that creeped the flesh.

He sighed, standing naked in the tiny room, facing the wall that said LOOK HERE, reached out to slap the READY button, and hefted his arms in the air.

The floor jiggled slightly underfoot, testing his weight and such. Something reached out and pricked his spine. A cuff wrapped his ankle, squeezing hard and then letting go. All the standard stuff; but then he heard a hiss, and looked up at the sound.

A hot, fetid chemical spray got him right in the face, filled his mouth with a sharp metallic tang. He squinted his eyes closed and crashed to the side, yacking and spitting and gasping through the antiseptic shower. That bitch; she could have at least warned him. He knew that wasn't part of the usual lab work; that was the nurse just being a bitch.

He yanked and stretched his clothes back on his damp flesh, the knit fabric still sticking to his rolls. Everything twisted and pinched, reeking of antiseptic, his hair hanging in wet orange-tinted springs around his ears. Angry words built on the end of his tongue, getting bigger with each frustrating second. Finally, Matt grabbed his shoes and flung himself out of the cabinet.

A different nurse stood waiting for him, a male. A big, pale, moon-faced nurse who stood a good foot taller than Matt. He had carrot-orange hair and a work pad tucked under a bicep as big as Matt's head. "Ready?"

Matt blustered, waving his shoes in a generic gesture. "Where is...?"

"Tika was due for a break," the carrot answered. "I'm Chuck."

"Of course you are," Matt let his words ooze out as scathingly as possible.

Chuck raised his eyebrows, looking like a skeptical harvest moon. "Ready?" he asked again.

Matt's face soured around unexpressed anger. He tried to keep his cool as prickles of frustrated tears stabbed his disinfected eyes. "I hardly think the shower was in the lab orders. Now I'm going to stink of hospital all day. And I have important events of consequence occurring today. Important. Events."

The man-nurse had the gall to grin at him. "Got a guild raid tonight? My little brother's into that shit, too. Of course, he's 16."

Matt spluttered. He did have a guild raid that night, actually; but that wasn't the damned point. Still clutching his shoes in his hand, he turned and marched down the hall toward the exam rooms.

"Actually, mate," Chuck grinned and pointed back the way of the waiting room. "You're on call."

His face flamed, so mad it hurt to breathe. "I have an appointment."

Chuck gave a grinning wince. "You missed your appointment, doing your labs. You're on call, now, guy."

This was just the end. He could feel the sweat trickling his upper lip, blood rushing in his temples. People walked past them in the hall, watching them, no doubt laughing at the fat boy getting shown by the human carrot.

"I'll just reschedule," Matt said, parking his butt against the medi-cabinet door to bend over and hook a shoe on.

Chuck glanced at his work pad with a grin. "No, you won't."

Matt sagged. The indignity. No, he wouldn't. Shame-faced and sagging, hobbling on one shoe and carrying the other, he headed back into the waiting room. He muttered as he went, "I will be filing a complaint about this outrageous treatment. Just because you can't schedule to allow for..."

"Sure thing, boss." Chuck tapped on the work pad. "I just sent you the complaint form. Take a seat and wait until your name is called."

Matt harrumphed into a seat, fixing his shirt across his belly and bending over to put on his other shoe.

"Don't do it," said the old woman in the seat next to him, bitter wrinkles lining her frowning mouth.

"Huh?" he said.

"You file a complaint against a nurse, you'll get an enema every time you come in, from now to eternity." She paused to suck her teeth and wag her ankle angrily. "Bunch of little fecking tyrants, those damned nurses."

"Oh," Matt finished snapping his shoe in place. "Yah."

The old woman looked him over as he leaned back and pulled his little work pad out of his pocket. "You're a fat one, ain't ya?" She gave a cackling laugh.

Matt gave her an ominous frown.

"How do you get away with it?" she asked, leaning over like a conspirator. "How do you get to stay so fat?"

He sneered. "They can make me come in. They cannot make me exercise."


As it turned out, they could make him exercise. Slouched over a table in his favorite coffee shop, the Coffee Shack, slurping at a caramel-drizzled, ice-blended excuse to have whipped cream, Matt glowered at his work pad. It took all of five minutes to get the post, so obviously the doctor had been plotting against him for some time on this.

Effective immediately, he had to put in 5 hours a week at his assigned gym branch, in addition to his ten hours of civic duty. Failure to comply with the medical order would result in a review from...yadda-yadda-yadda. There was some nonsense about calorie monitoring, as well; but Matt had been getting around that for years. Cash was still king, despite the government's efforts to phase out physical money. And his mom would always have cookies.

With a sigh, Matt slumped back in his chair, pushing around the crumbs remaining from his streusel muffin. They'd jerked him around about his appointment so much there was no way he'd catch his dad at the office still. Which meant a longer train ride to his dad's home, which further meant dealing with the step-unit. And if he was going to have to deal with all of that, he might as well wait until dinner time and get a free meal out of the deal.

Which was how he justified sitting in a crowded coffee shop in a too-small chair catching up on the daring-do exploits of Buck Bugger: Sex Pirate Extraordinaire. It made Matt feel especially daring, reading such raunchy fare out in plain public; even if it was just BW text. He figured he could nurse his huge caramelchino through another story or two before hitting the commuter train to suburbia and his rent money.

Someone jostled him from behind, spilling ice-blended sugar all down his hand. "Douche," Matt muttered, flinging drips off his hand and skewing his head around to glare at the offender.

"Oh, hey, sorry, guy," said the soft, modulated tones of yet another future executroid, one gym-firmed hand slapping Matt on the shoulder. "Oh, hey! Will you look at that, fellas! It's Biggie Brooks!"

Matt jerked his head up, eyes squinting. He hadn't heard that name since primary school.

The young professional, dressed in the same grey suit as all the rest, reached down and assaulted Matt's sticky-wet hand with his own, yanking it up and down. He had a helmet of black hair, huge white teeth, and ice blue eyes that wanted something from Matt.

"Biggie," the man sighed nostalgic, his hand still clamped to Matt's shoulder. "How long has it been? Years. Years, right?"

Matt had no idea who the hell this guy was, and shrugged.

"Go on ahead, fellas," the man said to the others with him, three men and a woman, a swarm of grey suits. "I want to catch up with my old school chum, here."

The woman raised a perfect blonde eyebrow.

"No, really. I'll see you at home, sweetums. I haven't had a chance to catch up with Biggie in years. Years, right?" The man pulled out a chair at Matt's table, unasked, and dropped into it. "The wife," he explained to Matt as the group left the shop. "She wants to go in next year to test out for a kid; but I'm all like do I really want another four years on that?" The man winced, showing even more white teeth.

Matt frowned intently at him. Buck had been about to laser off the bikini panties of a very hot double agent spy, and he'd like to get back to the story before his train went. "So, um..." he said, with the perfect amount of scathing twang, he felt, "who the fuck are you?"

"You don't remember me?" The man clasped his hand over his heart. "I'm wounded. You don't remember me? Dane? Dane the Mane! I mean, obviously, I had to lose the hair to get the job. No foot-long ponytails in the board room. Am I right?" He laughed and shot an elbow out, slamming Matt's drink about again.

Seriously? Matt set his cup on the table and flicked his hand again, frowning severely at Dane the Mane, who he had absolutely zero recollection of.

"Oh, hey, that's the second time I've done that. Sorry, man. Here. Let me get you another." Dane looked up at a harried waitress, snapped his fingers and called, "Oh, garconette!" in a smarmy tone.

Matt opened his mouth to explain that wasn't how it worked here; they only took orders at the counter.

"Por favor, je voudrais a nonfat soy decaf latte, and another of whatever my buddy here is having." Dane chortled at his slaughtering of three languages simultaneously.

Shockingly, the waitress didn't dump her bus pan in his lap. Instead, she nodded and said, "Yes, Mr. Marcus," and hurried off.

Matt blinked, rethinking this encounter.

"Dad owns this franchise," Dane said in a stage whisper. "And a few others. With my uncle." He flashed a showy wink. "Independent retirement plans, you know?"

Matt gave a grunt, accepted the replacement beverage and a hot, soapy cloth to clean his hand and the table.

Dane the Mane took an effeminate swig from his cup, stretched back in his chair, one long leg crossed over the other. Those cold blue eyes never left him, and Matt came back to the conclusion that the man wanted something from him. But now it felt okay, because Matt wanted something, too: a management position.

"So, what are you doing these days?" Dane asked with a measured level of casual. "Last I heard your dad bought you a great prenticeship with a chef?"

Matt shrugged. "That was a while ago. It didn't pan out. Chef had unrealistic expectations." Like showing up an unreasonable hours of the morning and an obsessive expectation of cleanliness that bordered on the insane. "What have you been doing?"

Dane waved a dismissive hand. "Nothing unexpected. Business school, legacy internship at AWB International."

Matt nodded, wondering how to swing the topic around to a job. Already imagining how he would tell his family, rub their faces in his new dream gig. Maybe throw a wad of cash in the step-unit's face and demand she tell him again how you didn't just start out in management.

Dane had continued on while Matt drifted into his imagined one-upmanship with his parents. He could almost taste his mom's celebratory cinnamon rolls as the man across from him carried on about his virtues and successes.

Suddenly, Dane sat forward in his seat, reaching into his jacket breast pocket. "So, say, there," he began.

Matt jumped, flinched back, but Dane just pulled a small work pad out.

"You always used to be good at the tech stuff. Can you maybe help me out?" He handed the delicate thing across the table. "I could pay."

Matt felt like crowing, here was the want. The management job was as good as his. And then he looked at the device being handed across, and salivated a little. That tiny little silver sliver of technology was an ICON460; they weren't even on the market yet. Matt had only seen partial specs on the thing. He rubbed his nose across the back of his hand and reached out. "What's wrong with it?"

Dane gave a delicate wince. "Just got the damned thing, you know, with the new promotion last week. And I was messing around with it, like, and got to browsing out there on the old web, you see."

Matt blinked at him. "You looked at porn?"

"Some really raunchy shit," Dane answered through a clenched and guilty smile. "Now I hear there's a tracker on the damn thing, and I have to sync it up on Monday."

Matt blinked at him. Even he knew work issued devices always had a tracker, and he'd never worked a day in his life. What kind of idiot was he dealing with, here?

"Fifty bucks if you can make it go away," Dane said, flat business, charm forgotten. "A hundred if you can show me how to fix it."

Matt blinked at him. "Got cash?"

"Of course," Dane pulled two crisp fifties out of his wallet, rubbed them together.

"So, this is what you do," Matt said, leaning forward over the slim work pad. He showed the young professional the back door into the operating system, and where to go to turn on and off all the tracking systems, including the physical tracker, in case he ever needed an alibi. It would register him at the place where he turned it off until he turned it back on. "So, like, you can go to a meeting, duck out for a bit, and then sign back in at the meeting. And it will look like you never left!" Matt tittered.

"Really?" Dane said, sliding his work pad back into his pocket. "That could come in handy." He slapped the table. "In handy, indeed!"

Matt nodded, sucking down the last of his coffee drink. He really had to go catch his train; but he wasn't going anywhere until he had that money. And a way to talk about that management job.

"I'm going to do you a favor, Biggie," Dane slapped the table again, nodding his head as though he'd made up his mind just then.

Matt shrugged, hunched over the table and still sucking loudly at his empty drink. "As long as it comes with the cash."

Dane gaped, perfect mouth full of perfect white teeth hanging open. "I don't follow..."

"The money? The cash. For fixing your unit." He wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "Two crisp fifties?" Matt rubbed his thumb against his fingers in the universal gesture of greed.

"Oh, ya. Of course." Dane threw the folded cash on the table, his face pursed around a dainty frown. "So, Biggie, I want you to meet a few movers and shakers at my workplace."

Matt thumbed the cash to make sure they were both there, stuffed them into his pocket, and stood with a loud scrape of chair. "I gotta catch my train."

Dane frowned, a burst of panic flashed across his face, making him look so very young and vulnerable. But then he flashed a grin, crossed an ankle over his knee, and played on. "So, we'll say about 10 on Friday? I'll send you my address."

Matt paused, shifting his sack onto his back. "Why?"

"For the party!" Dane laughed, swiping and tapping on his pad. "There. I sent you the address. You're coming, right?"

"Why?" Matt squinted suspiciously, looking for the catch.

"Hey," Dane laughed, leaning forward with a suggestive wink. "That trick you showed me? A lot of guys would love that. The first bit, about making the porn go away? Not the bit about ditching the meeting. We'll keep that between us."

Matt blinked at him. This felt too much like the moment right before the wedgie.

Dane stood up, a little brusque business. "I'll call you my cleaner. And we'll say the house--that would be me, see?--get's twenty percent."

The cash in Matt's pocket got warm, glowing with promise of fellows joining it soon. But still, he couldn't help being suspicious, wary of the bulrush into the shower stall to spend the rest of the day dripping, bruised, and mocked.

"You're heading to your train? Let me walk you." Dane clipped an arm around Matt's shoulders and walked them out the door. "Keep in mind, you don't have to charge these guys the friends and family price you hit from me. Feel free to really gouge them. They were bad, and they deserve to pay. It's the only way they'll learn."

Matt nodded and, ushered to the station by his new old friend, got all caught up in the planning. Giggling and snorting, Matt helped determine code words, deciding his best spy wardrobe, and general capricious plans. Dane said that if it went well, they could plan other parties, make this a regular thing.

Giddy, Matt watched Dane walk away from the train station through the doors. He ignored the conductor's "take a seat, please" as the gangly-legged man ambled from streetlight to streetlight. His work pad up to his ear, probably already arranging the order of the sheep they would sheer together.

At the droning insistence of the conductor, Matt finally shuffled into a seat, gleefully taking up a dual bench all to himself, not the least guilty about his excess. He was bursting, on the verge of the moment his life finally became epic. Money, friends, fancy parties.... Hell, if this took off, he wouldn't have to go up and visit his dad for rent money anymore.

And then doubt began to weigh down his smile, his hopes. Why would anyone pay big money for something that could be learned on-line for free? He had no memory of this Dane character at all; which put him square in the group of rich and beautiful bullies who provided endless, faceless torment. Why would he all of the sudden want to be best buddies?

The more he thought about it, the less giddy he felt. By the time the train rocked into his dad's neighborhood, he'd talked himself out of the whole thing. Lucky to come out of it all dry and with a hundred bucks in his pocket.

By the time he'd walked to his dad's stop, he'd firmly decided not to go to the party. And after the eight block walk, he'd practically forgotten all about it. Most of his thought, other than playing Blic-Bloc on his pad as he walked, was coming up with a good story about why he needed more money for rent.

His dad had been giving him an allowance since he flunked out of his prentice program. Ostensibly to help Matt "until he got his feet under him." Because, really, no one could live on the basic benefit from the government; that was surviving, not living. After five years of this allowance, the step-unit had lost all semblance of patience, demanding to know what efforts Matt took to maintain himself.

Matt paused at a street corner, waiting for the pedestrian light. They lived in a really old part of town, and it hadn't been entirely retro-fitted to modern standards; like here, here pedestrian and vehicular traffic had to interact. He continued to mull his situation while he waited.

Patty was just pissed because she never got approved to have kids, back in her time. Bad genes, or whatever. So now she was always riding Matt's ass, trying to get some washroom bragging rights off him, or something.

His dad, on the other hand, had been approved to breed twice. And he never had anything more than a soft sigh to say when Matt needed to borrow a little extra kaching to get through the next month. Seriously, Patty would probably shit if she knew how often Dad had to issue that tired sigh.

But now he stood in front of his dad's house and once again his angry mental rant about the step-unit had prevented him from coming up with a good need-cash story. A story he wouldn't need in the first place, if Patty wasn't such a nosy bitch.

He stood gaping at the tastefully lit front of the fourplex, mentally stuck. But then he shrugged and bulled forward. He'd just go with some version of the buying new pants story.

At the gate, a simple printed iron design, Matt sighed and shook his head. As much as they paid for this place, they could at least update the security. A five year old could hack an 8-digit code pass. He punched the numerals with his pinky, the pad was so old his fingers often mashed more than one.

The gate clicked open, and Matt's groan grew heavier as he approached the door. They had the lower left unit, because his dad had blown his knee out in the service all those years ago. But it wasn't usually all lit up, like this. The front porch light blared like a beacon, and all the garden paths twinkled along the edges. Through open windows, Matt heard muted music, polite laughter, and the occasional clink of wine glasses.

He sagged a little. Well, shit. They were having a party? It was Wednesday night! They had work in the morning! And they were old! A party just did not make sense. In the end, he went forward with a shrug; he hadn't come all this way to pay his own damn rent.


She opened the door with a welcoming smile, the hall lights sparkling off her eye makeup and flowing blouse-thing. For a moment, she was just a moderately attractive older woman and not the bitter center of an evil universe.

When she saw him, the smile and sparkle turned flat, turning from silver to gray. "Oh." She turned her face away and yelled over her shoulder. "It's your son, George."

And turned, walking away from him, down the hall and into the living area. Matt stood blinking, left in the open doorway.

"Richard?" George said, a happy lilt in his tone that always hit Matt right in the gut. He loved being constantly compared to Richard, also known as Super Brother. The kid was so superior, genetically, that they'd let George have another go at procreation, albeit with a different woman.

"No," Patty answered, tone purposefully flat.

"Oh," George's voice fell. "Well, is he coming in? Should I buy another movie ticket?"

Matt closed the door behind himself and trundled after the step-unit.

Patty gave an elegant shrug and an indelicate snort. "Don't know. But I'm sure he'll stay for dinner."

"Oh, Matty!" squealed his mother.

Matt froze, frowned, taken off guard. His mom was here? Was Tom here, too? That might make things challenging. He shook his head and continued down the hall; it was what it was.

"I'll go put in another box of pasta," Patty said, smiled at the room, gave Matt a nasty smirk, and disappeared into the kitchen.

The hallway opened into the living area, a cozy U of soft seating units around a central table, facing the giant wall of video. Ramona sat at the far end of the room, patting the spot next to her and smiling frantically. Only his mom and dad were in the room.

Matt had to walk carefully; the furniture was too big for the room, and Patty had knickknacks all over the place. More than once his ass had caused a shattered incident. And then Patty would purse her lips and remain judgmentally silent as she cleaned up chunks and slivers and powder; and his dad gave less generously when it came time to ask.

"So, where's Tom?" Matt asked as he plopped into the spot next to his mother, careful not to rack his sack on the subtle ridge between predefined seats that he never fit into.

Ramona flashed a fragile, teary-eyed smile. "He decided against another four years and moved out." She gave a little hiccup, still smiling frantically as her eyes began to leak. "Yesterday."

Matt nodded. Did that mean he was off the hook for the money he'd borrowed from Tom? He kinda felt like it did.

"So, Matt," his dad barked, pointing his work pad at the wall. "Are you staying for the movie?"

Behind them, Patty clinked dishes loudly as she pulled the table out and put on another setting. Their own fault, for going retro. For a little more cash each month, they could have a more modern place, that would do all that at the press of the button. Plus be closer to Matt, so it didn't take him a whole day to visit.

Her hand patting his knee in a manner that quickly became irritating, Ramona continued. "I was so surprised! I thought everything was fine. And then he was just gone. Poof!" She gave a big-bosomed sigh and knuckled a tear from her eye.

"So? Matt?" his dad barked. A former military man turned corporate security, he was still a brazen, barrel-chested brujah with a butch cut. "Movie? Yes or no, here?"

Matt looked at his dad, noticed he was turning as gray as Patty. "What movie?"

"Yes. Your dad and Patty invited me over for dinner and a movie. To help cheer me up." She sniffled delicately and resumed patting Matt's knee.

"I don't know," George grumbled, meaning the movie wouldn't have explosions or soldiers. "Patty, what's the movie, again?" he called, still holding his pad pointed at the wall, where the move ticket menu displayed purchasing options.

"Over the Moon," Patty answered, walking into the room and perching on the arm of the seat his dad was in. "Dinner in about eight minutes."

Matt shook his head.

"Oh, you'll love it, Matty. It's supposed to be the best Lucy Abbrahms movie this year. I just love a good Rom-Com, don't you?"

Matt shook his head.

"So? Ticket?" George barked again. "Someone answer me, here, so I can go eat."

"Yes. Buy him a ticket, George. I'll pay you back." Ramona smiled.

Matt shook his head frantically, moving away from his mother's patting hand. "I still have a long train ride in returning to my own accommodations to consider for this evening. Regretfully..."

Patty rolled her eyes and sipped from her wine glass.

"Oh!" Ramona gave a pout and looked to George. "He could stay the night here on the couch with me. Right, George?"

Matt shook his head so hard his ears rang, imagining a night on the world's most uncomfortable fold-out with his weeping, hot-flash-sweaty mother plastered to his side.

"The boy's too old to be sleeping with his mother," George said, dropping his pad onto the table and getting up from his seat with twin gunshot snaps from his knees. "Let's eat. I'm starved."

As Matt followed into the dining room, he reviewed how weird his family was. Most parents were gone and done with each other after their cohabitation contract was done, like his dad and Richard's mom. They didn't all hang out together and have dinner parties.

Matt flopped into a seat, bumping the table and clanging the dishes. Patty always showed off at family dinners: fancy napkins, real-flame candles, all that. But he'd seen her eat cereal over the sink just like the rest of them. So she wasn't fooling him, any. He tossed the swan napkin off the plate and grabbed the fork. She'd mentioned pasta, and he hoped his dad had made the sauce.

Patty walked in from the kitchen, carrying a huge bowl of pasta. Matt grimaced; she should have served the noodles separate from the sauce, in his opinion. Now he would have to dig to get enough shrimp balls. She did these things just to piss him off.

He reached for the serving tongs as soon as the bowl touched the table, sloshing sauce onto the table linens in his quest for the shrimp balls.

George frowned heavily at him, but then turned to his mother. "I tried a new recipe for the sauce. It calls for a specific wine. Patty had to go up to LA to find it."

"Well, to be fair," Patty said, her wine glass clasped in both hands in front of her. "I did have to go there for work, anyway. And George was the one who actually found it. All I did was drive."

Matt made a snort. Must be nice to have a car. He bent over his plate and began eating. George reached for the tongs of the seriously depleted pasta supply. Silence bounced around the room as Matt slurped.

"As a matter of fact," Patty started the bread basket around, rudely passing to Ramona first, "it's also the wine we're drinking tonight. We grabbed a whole case, and I'm glad we did. I really like it."

"Oh, it's delish," his mom agreed, tonging out two pieces of bread and then handing it over to George, despite Matt's outstretched hand. "Matty, put your napkin in your lap, sweetie."

Matt snatched the mangled swan off the table and wadded it on his leg, his cheeks super-heated.

"Yes, Matt. Why don't you sit up and join the conversation?" Patty said, a snide smile on her face. "What are you up to, these days?"

"Oh, Matty's just a little shy," Ramona said, giving puppy eyes to her son.

"Patty, he's fine," George said at the same time.

Matt snorted a laugh.

"Jesus Christ, George. He looks like he's in a prison mess hall, not a family dinner." She slammed her wine glass down so hard it should have broken the stem. "And, Ramona, dear; he's a grown man, not ten. It won't kill him to have to use some manners."

"Can we do this another time?" George looked between the two women. "We're eating, here."

Ramona looked down at her plate, weeping.

Patty frowned, muttered something about cheese, and stomped off to the kitchen, taking her wine glass with her.

Matt grinned around a mouthful of shrimp and linguini. He loved it when he made them fight; the guilt made his dad more generous.

"So, how much?" George asked, his voice flat, looking only at his plate.

"Huh?" Matt blinked. This was a new twist.

George shrugged, then looked up and pinned his son with an icy stare. "Don't bullshit me. It's first of the month, your rent is due. You don't come here just to visit. How much are you short?"

Matt wiped his mouth with his napkin, shrimp sauce gurgling nervously in his belly. "All of it. There was this job interview, and my pants--"

"Fine." George looked down at his plate again. "It'll be there in the morning. But I can't keep doing this."

"Actually," Matt licked his lips, "if you've got it in--"

"No cash," George snapped in a tone that closed all argument.

Caught off-guard, Matt started babbling, trying to get back to their usual routine. "You see, I had the funds sufficient to address rent completely set aside, when a fortuitous meeting with an old schoolmate lead to my discovery that his involvement in a local establishment..." he could see that no-one was listening to his exciting and detailed story, but he could seem to stop talking, carrying on and on. "...and I could hardly wear ripped trousers to an interview, so--"

"You had an interview?" Patty asked, walking back in with both a refilled wine glass and a small glass bowl of pre-grated cheese; Matt preferred to grate his own. "With whom?" she set the bowl in front of Ramona.

"As I was saying," he said as he reached across the table to snatch the cheese bowl closer to his plate. "After a fortuitous meeting with an old schoolmate--"

"It's nothing, Patty. Another friend who's getting him straight in on the management track." George huffed, drained his glass, and wiggled the empty glass in the air. "Any more of this left? I might as well have a nice nap through the smoochy movie."

"Oh, George," Ramona gave a tearful laugh, and then turned damp eyes up to Patty. "I wouldn't mind another glass of wine."

Patty dinged her spoon against her glass, laughing. "Another bottle, coming up!" She rose from her seat.

Matt panicked, they were moving on with their fun; like his pants story, that he'd worked so hard on and was almost true, didn't even matter. He slammed his fists on the table, harder than he meant to, and everything on the table jumped and clanged. "I do too have an interview!"

They all blinked at him, Patty with a particularly malicious grin. "Okay," she said with a dismissive shrug.

"Of course you do, honey," said Ramona, trying to straighten her dishes.

"An interview is not a job," George barked. "Wine?" he asked.

"Right," Patty said as she ducked back into the kitchen. "George, did you tell Ramona about Richard's good news?" she called back.

"Another promotion?" Ramona asked.

Matt's mouth fell open.

"Even better," George said, pausing to swallow a mouthful of pasta. "He and his lady were just approved to reproduce."

"Oh, George!" Ramona sighed. "That's fantastic! You're going to be a grandpa!"

"Isn't it just incredible?" Patty oozed as she waltzed back into the room, filling Ramona's glass and then passing the bottle to George. "Their first fertility appointment is next week."

"It's not even your kid!" Matt burst. "What the hell do you care?"

Again, they all sat blinking at him. George's face wore a heavy frown.

Matt pursed his lips. "You all act like he's the best kid, ever. But does he come over to visit you, like I do?"

"Well, sure," George answered with a shrug. "Just yesterday. He and Kimmy brought steaks with them. For dinner."

"And he doesn't ask for money, when he visits." Patty added. After a warning look from George, she said, "What? The boy wants it out on the table, let's put it out there."

"Patty," George gave a weak warning.

Ramona sat with big tears bubbling in her eyes, but she kept nodding her head.

"Richard is a good kid," Patty said, knuckles on the table and leaning over Matt. "He's a freaking poster child for what a good citizen should be. He performs well at his jobs, is socially pleasing, and honors his family."

"Ya, well," Matt's head bobbed as he tossed the napkin no longer representative of a swan on the table next to his half-empty plate. "He's always had it easy--"

"He works his ass off," George barked.

"You're the one always taking it easy," Ramona said with a rare firmness. "I'm sorry, Matty, but--"

"No sorry," Patty interrupted. "Don't be sorry." She turned back to Matt, her eyes alive with all the disgust she usually hid. "You're a parasite, living off the efforts of others as if it was your right."

"I do my civil labors. Always." Matt defended himself. "I almost never file an excuse."

Patty snorted. "You do the barest minimum. And hold your hand out for the rest. You're a parasite."

Matt's face screwed around his wrinkled nose. "Our social contract says that the basics of life are to be available to those who at least perform a minimal civic duty, according to each ability."

Patty sat. "And you are the king of minimal." She twirled her glass in her fingers. "You do nothing, expect everything, and get all pissy when someone receives praise for their honest efforts. There is no job. There is no friend, and no interview. There never is. It's just another string to pull more money out of your father's pocket."

"There is a job!" Matt whined, red-faced and furious. "You're wrong!"

Patty gave a careless shrug. "Am I?"

"That's enough," George spoke quietly. "Everyone, eat your dinner. I paid good money for those movie tickets, and I intend to snore my money's worth out of it."

"I'm not hungry anymore." Matt slammed up from the table, hard enough to knock the wine bottle over. He stomped from the table as his mother scrambled to pick it up and Patty ran for extra napkins. What really stung, though, was their laughter, chasing him through the gate onto the street. They didn't even have their appetite ruined by the whole scene.

He paused, listening to the happy tinkling sounds drift over the night. He was tempted to bust their scrawny security box. Rip the damn thing right out of the ground and stomp it to bits. But he was scared his dad wouldn't cover the rent if he did it. So, frustration swirling in shrimp sauce in his gut, he trudged back to the train station.

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